Almost 20 years after the jumbled bodies of 17 men, women, and children were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich, England, researchers believe they know why they were thrown in there, many of them headfirst: It was an antisemitic hate crime. In sequencing DNA preserved in the bones, researchers incidentally "sequenced the oldest genomes from a Jewish population," says Selina Brace of London's Natural History Museum, lead author of a study published Tuesday in Current Biology, per the Guardian. Though researchers suspect all 11 children and six adults who landed together in the well between 1161 and 1216 were Jewish, whole genomes for six showed they were "almost certainly" Ashkenazi Jews, who typically carry a distinctive genetic ancestry, per CNN.
They descended from populations that arrived in England from Normandy, France, under the 1066-87 reign of William the Conqueror, England's first Norman king. Of the six, three were sisters—the youngest between 5 and 10 years old—and a fourth individual was their relative, per CNN. "We don't know actually how they were murdered, but it seems most likely that they were," Brace says, per the Guardian. Though there were other episodes of violence in Norwich around the time of the deaths—including a 1174 rebellion against King Henry II, during which Norwich was reportedly torched—researchers suspect they occurred during a February 1190 riot amid the Third Crusade, as Jewish people were the prime targets.
The medieval writer Ralph de Diceto noted those aiming to wrestle Jerusalem out of the hands of Muslim rulers "determined first to rise against the Jews," and on Feb. 6, 1190, "all the Jews who were found in their own houses at Norwich were butchered." The account "is evocative, but a deep well containing the bodies of Jewish men, women, and especially children forces us to confront the real horror of what happened," Tom Booth, a senior research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute and co-author of the study, says in a release. According to the study, the well stood in the Jewish quarter of Norwich. "Our study shows how effective archaeology, and particularly new scientific techniques such as ancient DNA, can be in providing new perspectives on historical events," says Booth. (Read more gene sequencing stories.)